Honey in His Mouth – Lester Dent

4 out of 5


I had the back-of-book blurb to guide me – conman Walter Harsh happens to look like a South American dictator, and gets wrapped up in a plot to depose-and-replace the man – but there was not a page of Lester Dent’s Honey in his Mouth on which I could tell you what was likely to happen next. And if you’re taking that as a sign of twists and turns, yes, but also – not exactly. More that I could never tell how the current scene was going to connect to the next one; where the story would even logically go. Chapters don’t really end in cliffhangers, and I wouldn’t qualify the twists and turns as especially twisty or turny. And yet Dent’s writing – his characters, his way through the story – is so confident, and so grounded in its world, that every page’s in-the-moment feel ends up flowing perfectly to that next in-the-moment, until you’re alongside Harsh and his current part of the scheme, narrative miles away from where we started, half laughing at the antics, half terrified by the way they can suddenly lurch into bloody fisticuffs, or just simply entertained by the way Dent strings us along.

The character of Harsh well represents the different tonal spheres the writer effortlessly jumps between: talking in lovably pulpy cagey talk – bantering his way out of a fight; lying to dig himself out or deeper – and then suddenly vicious, smacking his con-associate Vera Sue in the face while she’s asleep. It’s as though Dent doesn’t want you to get too on the “side” of Harsh, but also wants to keep him chummy enough so we’re invested in his plight, essentially kidnapped and held until those around the dictator can arrange for the switch. Smartly, though, this moralistic grayness extends to others, so it becomes difficult to cast anyone as squarely a villain, so much as several people following their own particular trajectories through circumstance; just as we’re not quite sure if we like or dislike Walter, Dent keeps us guessing as to whether or not we want this plot to succeed… and then in true pulp fashion, every step in one direction twists a knife and causes things to stagger back in the opposite direction, up through the high velocity ending.

There are some pieces that feel like they end up falling into the story’s gutters, though. The aforementioned Vera Sue seems important until she’s just not, left out of large swaths of the book, and Dent spends quite a bit of pages on Harsh’s operations and mentality before the kidnapping, which makes sense in terms of pacing and setup, but it also doesn’t end up really connecting with the latter part of the book in any special way. Both of these quibbles, though, are still subject to the overall praise above: that each moment in itself is immersive as heck, and so only when you put the book down to breathe – maybe a good chunk of time and pages having passed – do you have a chance to even consider these fairly tiny things.